Values, not results, are key to political high ground


Let each new hero comeSeeking the golden apples and Atlas.He must wrestle with me before he passInto that realm of fameAmong sky-born and royal:He may well throw me and renew my birthBut let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,My elevation, my fall.

–Seamus Heaney, from “Antaeus”

The facts are in, ladies and gentlemen, and they are these. Conservatives are kicking the collective asses of liberals. On virtually every issue, the country is more conservative than it was ten years ago, than it was 20 years ago. The federal government is now seen almost universally as at least a quagmire of inefficiency and bureaucracy, if not a fountain of oppressive evil. In every arena of governance, whether federal or state, legislative or judicial, conservative ideas dominate the debate. Movements to bring our society into a new era of equality and fairness are all on the defensive, struggling mightily even to define their basic motives and purposes.

And this is precisely the problem with the liberal movement. We have lost our way, and lost the ability to understand and communicate a coherent and engaging message. What does it mean to be a liberal these days? What does it mean to be progressive? Other than certain predictable positions on a variety of issues ranging from abortion to welfare, and a definitive antagonism to conservative positions, the term ‘liberal’ seems to have no meaning, and thus no inherent appeal.

When one looks at the liberal movement over the last 20 years (20 being the operative number, because that’s about as far back as I can remember), one notes a marked lack of coherence in any set of motivating principles. The liberal movement has been characterized as one of convenient bedfellows working together to achieve some set results. While one might certainly make a similar claim about the unholy alliance between the corporate welfarists and religious fundamentalists that is central to the current conservative movement, there is at least one key difference that helps to explain the success of the Republican party vis-à-vis the Democratic one: the idea of foundational motivating principles. Ask ten conservative what conservative principles are, and you’ll hear certain common themes: libertarianism, distrust of big government (read: federal), belief in local communities. Even in the supposedly erudite area of law, certain key precepts are consistent among virtually all conservatives: strict constructionism, states’ rights, judicial restraint.

Ask ten liberals what liberal or progressive principles are, and you’ll probably end up with a fractured cacophony of issues. Again, ask about what liberal or progressive principles in the law are, and you’ll likely hear a litany of issues. This is the key to the demise of modern progressivism. We have lost any sense of moral foundation, and have focused myopically on certain key results without any real defense of their basic purposes. The liberal movement has become the movement of abortion, affirmative action and welfare, rather than the movement of civil liberties, civil rights and equality of opportunity. If the current liberal movement is to survive, it must reassess and reclaim its core values, which may even necessitate a reexamination of some of its core issues.

At some point in the last 15 years, the conservative branch of the Republican party claimed the moral high ground, and has brandished it ever since. If liberals make a concerted effort to reestablish their moral foundation, I find it hard to believe that an ideology which is essentially based in the disenfranchisement of the poor, a plundering of public pecuniary and natural assets for the rich, and a reckless disregard for the future of our country would somehow stand its ground against an ethos rooted in such values as equality of opportunity, social welfare and stability, and civil liberty.

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